05: Mr. Gordon Goes To Chicago


Hightower I’m standing near the corner of East 56th street and South Hyde Park Boulevard on the south side of Chicago. Even though it’s the middle of May, the temperature is only in the mid 40s. I cannot help but wish I had worn a heavier coat.


I’m standing, somewhat creepily, in the middle of a playground that sits just to the north of the Museum of Science and Industry. The museum itself was originally built as part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. It’s an impressive neoclassical structure that houses the largest – and in my mind, the coolest – science museum in the western hemisphere.


But I’m not here to talk about that building. I’m here to talk about another one. One that isn’t here. At least not anymore.


During the 1893 Exposition, the area where I’m standing was filled with buildings. Each state in the US was invited to build a pavilion that celebrated their unique history, culture and significance. And where I’m standing was the location of the building built by what was then a very poor, rural state, but one that had aspirations to be something more.


I’m standing was where the Texas State Building was located. It was designed by James Riley Gordon, a Texas architect who also had aspirations to be something more.


And that’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the fifth episode of The Works, a podcast about architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


James Riely Gordon was born in 1863 in Winchester, Virginia. At the age of 11 he and his family moved to San Antonio. In the closing decades of the 1800s south Texas was growing and Gordon decided a career in architecture might be worthwhile.


After apprenticing for several local architects, he landed a job as the superintendent of a federal courthouse and post office that was being built just a block away from the Alamo. This job gave him the experience he needed to start landing courthouse commissions of his own. He was first hired by Aransas County to design their courthouse. And then he was hired by Fayette, Victoria, Bexar and Erath Counties. By 1893 Gordon’s career was off to an impressive start.


To learn more about Gordon I read a book about him.  Actually, it’s the only book about him and it was written by Chris Meister.


Chris My name is Chris Meister. I’m a graphic designer and architectural historian living in Royal Oak Michigan.


Hightower By day, Chris is a graphic designer for General Motors. If you’re in a GM vehicle, the diagram on the sun visor – you know, the one that illustrates the awful things airbags do to kids in car seats – it was probably created by Chris Meister.


But by night, Chris researches buildings and the architects who create them. He became interested in Gordon when he and his family were living in Houston in the nineteen-eighties. It took him about 30 years, but eventually he finished it. James Riely Gordon: His Courthouses and other Public Architecture was published it in 2012.


According to Chris, Gordon’s early courthouse projects were executed in what was called the Richardsonian Romanesque style – an approach to design that was uniquely suited to Texas in the closing decades of the nineteenth century.


Chris One of the things that made the Richardsonian Romanesque so popular is that very adaptable to different building needs and also to different personalities and different building materials. It was also a style that could be supported in building materials in a, well, how do we say this, a more rustic environment…


Hightower Chris is trying to be nice about the fact that it was pretty hard to find good stone masons in Texas in the 1890s. It’s a fair point.


Chris The rough-cut stone was something stonemasons anywhere could do whereas some of the finer, smooth-dressed stone you had to have a pretty expensive operation in one of the larger quarries.


Hightower Through their design, Romanesque buildings express their weight and solidity. In the late 19th century when south Texas was quite literally on the frontier, creating a courthouse that communicated permanence was a good thing.


Now there were plenty of other architects designing Romanesque courthouses in Texas at the time but Gordon’s buildings were exceptional.


Chris One of the things that makes Gordon’s work stand out was that he was so well at dealing with the proportions and the ornament. I mean these buildings hold together pretty nicely as compositions which can’t be said of all Richardsonian Romanesque local manifestations. There’s just a quality – an artistic sense – it’s hard to put a finger on but there is a quality of work that definitely sets it above many of Gordon’s contemporaries.


Hightower In other words despite having no formal architectural education, Gordon was good. Really good. He was also really ambitious and would do whatever it took to advance his career. With several courthouses already to his credit, Gordon’s career was off to a great start. But it was about to be jolted in a very different direction.


As Gordon was designing his first courthouses in sleepy towns in Texas, city and business leaders in the bustling metropolis of Chicago where busy preparing for a world’s fair to be called the World’s Columbian Exposition.


To learn more about this event, I spoke to Olivia Mahoney, the Chief Curator at the Chicago History Museum.


Olivia The World’s Columbian Exposition was staged in 1893. And it was held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the new world.


Hightower Wait, I thought it was in 1492 that Columbus sailed the ocean blue.


Olivia We were a year late – there were some delays getting the thing built.


Hightower When we think of fairs today we imagine corn dogs and carousels. And although this fair had plenty of that sort of thing, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fairs such as the one in Chicago were important opportunities for people to share ideas.


Olivia Well, in the days before mass communication and really easy travel these I think were highly significant gatherings of people from all over the world – primarily the western world – to again sort of celebrate their sense of self, their progress, but also to share information and learn from each other.


Hightower For Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition was especially significant. The city itself had just been rebuilt following a disastrous fire that destroyed most its downtown. The fair was a way to celebrate the city’s rebirth while promoting it on the national and international stage.


Partially because so much of it was new, Chicago was the home of some of the most exciting and progressive architecture of the day. The skyscraper had arguably been born in Chicago and architects such as Louis Sullivan were working to create a new approach to design that was uniquely American.


However, the planners of the fair didn’t want to show how their city was new and different. They wanted to prove it was just as good as the older cities of Europe. The chief architect of the Exposition, Daniel Burnham, chose to use classical architecture to illustrate how Chicago was part of a long progression of civilization that extended back to antiquity.


Olivia The architecture was neoclassical. And that was a decision made by Burnham and his team of architects. They wanted something that harked back to the days of ancient Greece and Rome to I think really give an air of legitimacy to this fair. It was out here in the western hinterlands of the United States and they wanted to put their best face forward and look like a very formal, proper, dignified fair.


Of course at the time some people were quite upset with this because it’s not a truly American style.


Hightower Louis Sullivan was especially peeved. He said, and I quote, “The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind.”


It turns out he was right. But that’s another story for another podcast.


Anyway, the World’s Columbian Exposition covered nearly 600 acres on the south side of Chicago. And regardless of what Sullivan thought, the fair was breathtaking. The domes and colonnades of its buildings – like those built around a lagoon in the exposition’s central Court of Honor – were pure white and were illuminated every evening with a new technology - electric lights. It became known as the “White City” and its influence was huge both architecturally and culturally. American cities began trying to recreate the beauty of the White City in their civic centers. The reference to “alabaster cities” in “America the Beautiful” is actually a reference to fair.


Shanon Quartet      O beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears!

America! America!


Typically no one ever sings all four verses of that song which is why you may have never heard that part before.


At any rate, on the north side of the exposition grounds, just past the Palace of Fine Arts, there was an area of the fair set aside for pavilions to be built by US States and territories. 44 states existed in 1893 but only 36 built buildings there. It turns out it was hard to convince state governments to invest the funds necessary to build a building in far-off Chicago.


Olivia But the states that we did have were well represented and for the most part those again were classically styled buildings. Illinois had one of the largest and it looked like the state capitol and yet some states tried to put up something a little more unique and different looking. Idaho is a really good example – it looked like a really large rustic cabin.


Hightower States were actually encouraged to build something that spoke to the uniqueness of their history.


Olivia But inside each of these pavilions each state had displays about its history, its natural resources, its economy - again, an opportunity for them to tell other people about themselves and to boast. And to take that moment of pride; “Here we are, here are our great accomplishments.”


Hightower Although some states hired local Chicago architects to design their buildings, others used architects from their home states. When it came time for Texas to choose a designer, they hired none other than the young and ambitious James Riely Gordon.


Chris Meister picks up the store from here:


Chris Originally the planners of the fair wanted a structure that would mimic the missions of San Antonio. They wanted to produce a kind of “local flavor” to the Texas State Building. However, there was a lot of press around the buildings of the Court of Honor, which was going to be in the classical Beaux Arts style that was becoming increasingly popular in the East. It appears as if Gordon was aware of this trend for the Court of Honor and so he designed something that would be fitting for that architectural style.


Hightower You see, Gordon wasn’t interested in dwelling on Texas’s past. He was much more interested in expressing its potential future. He saw Texas not as the frontier state that it was at the time, but the proud and thriving place it could become. That sense of optimism was something he built into his courthouses and it was something he sought to build into the Texas State Building as well.


And so what Gordon created was a pavilion that had the character of the majestic structures built in the Court of Honor while still acknowledging his state’s unique cultural heritage.


Chris And so Gordon, again I believe he was driven by the grand designs for the Court of Honor for his inspiration. So he did his own personal take on the Spanish Colonialism to be as close to what they were doing on the lagoon.


Hightower In addition to the notoriety that came with his building in Chicago, Gordon also had an opportunity to travel there and meet some of the biggest names in his profession. He reviewed his design with Daniel Burnham and also visited the office of Adler and Sullivan.


Chris He definitely met Sullivan’s partner, Dankmar Adler. There is a letter where he thanks Adler for his hospitality and showing him around Adler and Sullivan’s office in the tower of the Auditorium Building. That’s a very confined space and it’s not inconceivable that Gordon also met Louis Sullivan and also met Frank Lloyd Wright. They were working in that office at the time – weather or not they were there on the particular day Gordon was there I can’t say with certainty but it seems very likely.


Hightower Gordon was only four years older than Wright and it’s fun to imagine what these two emerging architects would have thought of each other.


Based on what I know about their personalities, Wright probably thought Gordon was a hack while Gordon probably thought Wright was a jerk. But I’m just guessing.


Anyway, Gordon’s design for the Texas State Building was widely praised and no doubt helped him secure additional courthouse commissions in Texas. Eventually he would design and build 18 of them in the state. And although he continued to design in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, their internal organization was transformed by his project in Chicago.


It turns out the plan of the Texas State Building started out very similar to his early courthouse buildings in Texas in that they were designed around a central courtyard.


Chris You see that reflected in his courthouses for Fayette county and Victoria County. Then as they kept having to whittle down Gordon’s designs for the Texas State Building…


Hightower Organizers had trouble raising the funds to pay for its construction and the state legislature wasn’t all that helpful either.


Chris …And he ended up with a cruciform design that appears to have been an epiphany for Gordon where he realized this building had wonderful merits from a ventilation and lighting standpoint. All the rooms in the building would get windows on at least two sides. This is curtail for cross-ventilation and also natural lighting. Following the fair, Gordon used this cruciform design for every courthouse he designed up until his death in 1937.


Hightower But Gordon didn’t spend all that time in Texas. In 1900 he moved his practice north to Dallas and then two years later he moved it and his family to New York City. In time, Gordon established a practice that was just as successful as the one he had in Texas. He built courthouses in New Jersey, New York and Maryland and his influence in the northeast was so great that his obituary in the New York Times didn’t even mention any of his earlier Texas work.


Of course, Texas had done fine on its own without Gordon. It continued to grow and after the turn of the twentieth century, it became a center of oil production. The wealth associated with that allowed Texas to grow into the economic powerhouse it is today. The future Gordon had predicted in his courthouses and in this Texas State Building eventually came to pass.


Gordon’s later projects in Texas as well as all of his work in the northeast were done in a classical Beaux-Arts style. This approach had become increasingly popular in the US as a result of the influence of the World’s Columbian Exposition.


Chris There are sets of rules for the classical orders and you violate those rules at your own risk. The Richardsonian Romanesque was much freer, much more open to individual interpretations. You can travel around Texas and see a Gordon courthouse and know it’s a Gordon courthouse. The Richardsonian Romanesque really did lend itself to individual expression. Which is also one of the reasons I think why it was popular for younger architects as Gordon was at the time.


Hightower Gordon’s earlier Texas work displayed a playfulness and inventiveness that seems to have been lost by the time he arrived in New York. His later projects were still really good but there were plenty of other architects doing good work at that time and place. That wasn’t the case in Texas.


There are two radically different ways of understanding Gordon’s commission in Chicago. One is that by being be involved in such a transformative event, Gordon’s work became stronger as a result.  By interacting with the greatest architects of his day – by touching the border of the garment of the likes of Burnham and Sullivan – Gordon was inspired to be more ambitious both artistically and professionally.  The other view is that Gordon was already well on his way to greatness and that his exposure to the established architectural elite caused him to retreat from the more exploratory nature of his earlier work.


Either way, the Texas State Building was an important turning point in his career. It is ironic, then, that the building stood for only a few months.


Of the 200 structures that were built for the World’s Columbian Exposition nearly all of them were intended to be temporary. Most of the exhibit buildings were constructed of wood and clad in cheap stucco that was only painted white. Most of what wasn’t torn down after the fair was burned in a fire in the summer of 1894.


One of the only structures to survive was the Palace of Fine Arts. As it was intended to house priceless artwork, it was built a little more solidly to begin with and in the 1930s it was refurbished and reopened as the Museum of Science and Industry. After an underground parking garage was finished in 1998, its north lawn was returned to the park-like condition that exists there today.


That lawn that gives no hint of the buildings that once sat upon it. Nor does it tell the story of the critical role one of those buildings played in the career of an ambitious Texas architect by the name of James Riely Gordon.


Special thanks today to Emily Osborn and Olivia Mahoney of the Chicago History Museum as well as to Chris Meister. I’ll put a link to Chris’s book about Gordon on the show’s webpage. It’s a really good book and I highly recommend it. For the record, I might also recommend my own book, “The Courthouses of Central Texas” which features drawings of all of Gordon’s Texas courthouses and places his work in the context of what other architects were doing at the time.


A special thanks is also owed to Clara, my wife, for courageously volunteering to be a single mom for a few days while I was in the Midwest doing research for this podcast.


Clara I didn’t volunteer - you just left.


Hightower This is the first time we’ve taken the podcast on the road and I really appreciate her support.


Clara You know what, I’m going to start a podcast of my own – one that requires me to go to Hawaii for a week. Have fun with the kids.


Hightower Oh dear.


The music today is by Chris Zabriskie and the podcast’s logo is by Julie Pizzo Wood. The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.


If you enjoy listening to this podcast, please rate us on iTunes where you can also leave a comment. And do tell your friends about the show. I feel this podcast is really starting to hit its stride and I’m hoping to expand the audience. I’m hoping you can help me with that.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.